Cultivating “Super-Empowered Hopeful Individuals” Who Can Respond Hineini:
A New Paradigm for Jewish Education: Idea #5

By Dr. Bill Robinson

Let’s get right into it this week …

Idea #5 is: The world is broken and in need of repair.

Our Jewish heritage speaks of a God-created world that is “good” and yet still incomplete, requiring humans to finish the work of creation – “to till and tend it.” The Jewish People have a unique (though not exclusive) responsibility to serve the world and make it a better place for all God’s creatures. This is found in God’s promise that Abraham’s descendants will be “a blessing.” It is further elucidated in God’s declaration by the prophet Isaiah that

It is too little that you should be My servant in that I raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the survivors of Israel. I will also make you a light unto nations that My salvation may reach the ends of the earth.

This notion that humans have the capacity to make the world a better place is, according to the political philosopher Michael Walzer, a contribution that Jews have made to civilization. The foundational history of the Jewish People is not just a story of national liberation from slavery in Egypt. It is the story of a People being formed and cultivated for a mission. We have a covenantal obligation and the power to CoCreate the World into a place of justice and caring, of well-being for all – in essence, to redeem creation. This was a new idea to many of those living at that time of kings and gods; it’s still arguably counter-cultural today.

This idea has reached prominence in the modern, American Jewish concept of tikkun olam (repair the world). Rooted in Kabbalistic mythology of the accidental “shattering of the vessels,” it asks us to view creation as intrinsically broken and thus in need of repair. In a similar vein, the 20th century philosopher Theodore Adorno urges us to look at the world “in the light of redemption” – seeing the ways in which it is not yet shlemut (whole). When the incompleteness of this awe-inspiring world becomes revealed, we are being called to respond. Do we answer the call, saying “hineini” (here I am) and siding with redemption? Or do we remain deaf to that call, focusing only on our own egotistical needs and desires – which then leads the world further from repair and further into despair.

As Abraham Joshua Heschel notes,

Every person participates at all times in the act of either destroying or redeeming the world. The Messiah is in us. This is why every child is of such tremendous importance.

As teachers, we have the responsibility of empowering and guiding each and every one of our learners. Will we inspire them with their God-given potential? Will we cultivate within them those virtues that lead away from the ego’s self-interest to an I-Thou encounter with the world? No less than the future is in our hands.

The first step in the education of the child (and in repairing the world) is simply to pay attention – to truly see and hear the world around us. As Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, recently wrote,

I’d like to focus on one of the significant truths highlighted by Hineini: often, the most powerful thing we can do is to be truly present for one another. It is good and necessary to want to do things for other people, but it is essential that we take the time to listen to them as well. … Camps aim to teach the next generation of Jewish leaders that “showing up” for others means being open to sincerely listen to the thoughts, perspectives, and feedback of others.

Before we act, we must truly listen, to put aside our own needs and to understand what is being asked of us.

As the story of Jacob encountering the angels (going up and down the ladder) illuminates, before we can recognize that the divine spirit was in this place, we need to let go of our “ego.” The text is usually translated as “God was in this place, and I didn’t know.” Perhaps Jacob (wandering away from home) just didn’t realize before that God was everywhere and not just back home. Larry Kushner’s offers an arguably more profound interpretation, paying attention to the repetition of “I” (anochi and v’yada’ti) in the Hebrew. “God was in this place and I, i did not know.” Jacob, the great egotist of Genesis, has a moment when he is not caught up with his own interests. To respond “hineini” is to be fully attuned to the other and their needs and desires.

This does not come naturally; it requires educational cultivation. The contemporary philosopher Michael Fishbane, in Sacred Attunement, suggests that Jewish text study offers us a set of practices through which learners can develop their ability to attune to the world. By first learning to attune to textual details and their potential import, one can then better attend to the details of our world and their potential significance to living a “good life.”

Textual study thus becomes a discipline of ethical and spiritual self-cultivation; and scripture is transformed from an authoritative corpus of received laws, beliefs, and memories into an authorizing matrix for ongoing meditative reflection and reflective action. (xii)

A second way that we can Cultivate Dispositions for attuning, in order to CoCreate the World, is through project-based learning in which the learners are tasked with addressing a challenge. While teachers often create artificial challenges as a game for their students, instead imagine offering learners the opportunity to develop solutions for real-life problems that are also “close to home,” such as 2nd graders addressing the ongoing struggles of congregations to be welcoming or 9th graders addressing the ecological impact of day school cafeterias. Instead of Jewish education as a space dedicated to the absorption of knowledge and skills by the student, imagine it as a space where learners are problematizing Jewish life and in the process becoming more empowered and engaged Jews in their communities.

The process of project-based learning, like “design thinking,” begins with deep listening and empathy. The learners begin simply by observing the situation as it is, and then they ask questions to clarify their comprehension of that which they just observed. All of this happens way before anyone starts offering solutions. As with text study, project-based learning cultivates within the learner the capacity for attunement. It also asks of them to be present and respond to that which they discover – to say “hineini.”

Third, our tradition also offers Jewish practices that cultivate attunement and the sense that you can make a difference in the world. One such practice is tzedakah. I am not picturing the Shabbat practice of placing coins into a tzedakah box. This is fine, yet it doesn’t work to achieve the middot that are the purpose of the tzedakah practice. As Maimonides instructed, it is a better practice of tzedakah to give $1 a thousand times, instead of $1000 once. This is because only in repetition do we develop the middot (virtues) that are internal to the practice of tzedakah – generosity, as well as the ability to pay attention to the world around us and respond to the needs of others.

To have tzedakah achieve this goal requires that it become an everyday, real-life practice. It must also be seen as a discipline, like yoga or meditation, in which we continually work to improve our practice. We do not get better at dropping coins into a box; yet through a real-life, everyday experiences we can learn to be more present and responsive to the others (often strangers) who we encounter during the course of our lives. Real-life becomes the true “classroom” and class time is best spent on reflection and consideration of the ways we may improve our Jewish practices that help us to cultivate the ethical and spiritual muscles we need to CoCreate a (Repaired) World.

Finally, this leads us to the gaming scholar Jane McGonigal, who talks about the ways in which epic gaming cultivates “super-empowered hopeful individuals” who will go on to fix a broken reality. When I first watched her TED talk, I thought to myself “How can Jewish educators use gaming pedagogies to achieve this with our learners?” And, then I had a small epiphany: It’s not about teaching Hebrew or History (etc.) through artificial games. Judaism already sees life itself an epic game, and the core purpose of Jewish education is to cultivate the capacity of Jews to play in the most important game there ever was and will be – the CoCreating of the World to be a place of justice and caring, of well-being for all. Judaism has already gamified reality for us. We have an epic task in front of us, and we are being called upon everyday to become “super-empowered hopeful individuals” – that’s the meaning of saying “hineini” and that’s the task of Jewish education.

Dr. Bill Robinson is the dean of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of JTS.